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ANALYSIS by David Staba

Glenn Choolokian refused George Lodick's debate challenge last week, but the Republican City Council candidate has clearly gotten under the skin of his Democratic counterpart.

"It has nothing to do with debates -- I debated last year in the mayor's race, and had no problem with that," Choolokian told the Niagara Falls Reporter. "It's just the candidate."

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Choolokian bristles at Lodick's criticism of his involvement in a lawsuit against the city filed by the union that represents Niagara Falls' water and sewer workers, of whom Choolokian is one.

He points to two years of campaigning, which produced an unsuccessful bid for his party's mayoral nomination in 2003 and an upset win over incumbent Councilman Jimmy Stewart in September's primary, and says, "I don't want to help him get his name out there."

Both are valid points -- for taking part in a debate, not for avoiding one.

Choolokian refers to Lodick's barbs regarding his union's lawsuit as "negative campaigning." But while union leaders, and lawyers, feel strongly that the transfer of the jobs in question to an independent authority was done improperly, Choolokian needs to explain the reasons to voters.

A debate would provide an ideal forum for that explanation, one that would reach more voters than any candidate could through a month of non-stop door-to-door campaigning.

Choolokian deserves credit for his dogged canvassing of the city's neighborhoods, which helped him to a surprisingly strong finish in the mayoral primary won by Vincenzo V. Anello more than a year ago, and lifted him past Stewart last month.

But no matter how many front porches he's stood on, it's a lock that more voters consider him a stranger than a familiar face. A debate, which would receive coverage from all the local newspapers, as well as radio and cable television, would provide publicity neither candidate could possibly afford.

That's especially important for Choolokian. His campaign has been able to raise some money since his primary victory, which all but emptied his coffers. But support from party leaders, who are still miffed that their endorsed candidate lost, has amounted to a half-hearted pat on the back.

Meanwhile, Lodick has received backing from the Niagara County Republican Party, led by Chairman Henry Wojtaszek and state Sen. George Maziarz. As you might recall, those are the guys who engineered last year's landslide in the Niagara County Legislature races, even grabbing a couple of once-untouchable city districts.

The county GOP sees this race as an opportunity to expand its influence at City Hall, particularly with three Council seats on the ballot in 2005.

While Choolokian doesn't want to help his opponent increase his name recognition, Lodick has been doing a pretty good job on his own through advertising, holding press conferences and knocking on doors.

Rejecting Lodick's initial entreaty was understandable -- few candidates would want to walk into a debate organized by an opponent.

Late last week, though, the Reporter offered to help organize a debate -- on neutral ground, moderated by a panel of media members, with ground rules agreed upon by both campaigns and sponsored by one or more citywide organizations.

Lodick accepted. Choolokian declined.

"It's too last-minute," Choolokian said. "We've only got two weeks left, and we've got our schedule set. It's up to the people of Niagara Falls."

Except that without a chance to see the candidates side-by-side, too many of those voters will be basing their choice on lawn signs and bumper stickers, rather than the stances of the two men on the gamut of issues facing Niagara Falls.

If they bother voting at all.

Choolokian is clearly counting on the overwhelming numbers advantage enjoyed by Democrats in Niagara Falls. But that could be a serious miscalculation for a couple of reasons.

First, as mentioned above, what passes for Democratic leadership isn't exactly knocking itself out to help a candidate who won the party's primary in large part by bashing Anello, its standard-bearer in Niagara Falls.

Second, as demonstrated in last fall's county legislature races and in September's Council primary, the local "Democratic machine" is badly in need of an engine overhaul, transmission replacement, a few new tires and a fresh coat of paint.

And it's not as if the Democratic nomination equates to a guaranteed victory in Niagara Falls. In recent years, Fran Iusi, Candra Thomason, and even Anello in a previous political life won Council seats with GOP backing.

Party loyalty has never been weaker in these parts. Thanks largely to yet another dismal performance by party leaders, turnout for last month's primary didn't begin to approach pathetic. Fewer than 15 percent of the city's registered Democrats pulled the lever in September.

Choolokian needs to find a way to improve those feeble numbers by Nov. 2, and a debate and the surrounding publicity could only help.

What would hurt Choolokian, though, is handing his opponent such a potentially damaging weapon by refusing to debate.

Lodick is sure to hammer on Choolokian's refusal at every turn over the next two weeks. And he told the Reporter that if Choolokian won't agree to square off, he'll find a location and debate an empty chair in the week before the election.

Such a stunt would be a publicity coup for the first-time candidate. But Lodick staging a one-man debate can only be bad for Choolokian, and would certainly do nothing to benefit the people of Niagara Falls.

Given its impact on the Council's makeup at a pivotal time in the city's history, the Choolokian-Lodick race is as important as any in recent memory.

Thanks to the nature of the business, we at the Reporter have gotten to know both men, and consider them both well-intentioned and decent -- though very different -- candidates. Our offer to help set up a debate still stands.

While Election Day draws closer, time remains to arrange an event that can only help both candidates, as well as serve the people they hope to represent.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct. 19 2004